Worsening welfare and security of IDPs in Nigeria

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The Chairman of the Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Bauchi State, Buba Musa Shehu, spoke bitterly the other day about the sorry conditions of Nigerians who have been forced to flee their homes and farms as a result of acts of criminality by bandits of various hues – herdsmen, kidnapers, armed robbers and terrorists. “Hunger is killing us, we have no one to cater for us … and some of our family members have died in the hands of Boko Haram members.” To boot, he was doubly bitter that, “government is not prioritising how to return us to our ancestral homes but instead spending resources to pardon and rehabilitate nearly 900 so-called repentant Boko Haram members… The government should first rehabilitate those that were offended, if not it is making a grave mistake… We are feeling like non-Nigerians in our country; we own this country together,” said Musa Shehu who represents about 56,000 displaced persons strewn across the 20 councils of the state (Bauchi).

United Nations Humanitarian Coordinator in Nigeria, Edward Kallon has more recently, also brought to the attention of President Buhari the poor condition of the IDP camps.  Said he: “The situation is still extremely difficult in the sense that the populations are still kept in garrison-type of camps. People are not able to return to rebuild their lives and livelihood and there are periodic attacks by non-state armed groups.”  In the Wassa IDP camp in the Federal Capital Territory, at least 30 pregnant women have died because there is no functional clinic. As in Bauchi, the chairman of the camp, Geoffrey Bitrus, noted that the camp inmates had no money to take care of themselves. These tales of woes and misery repeat in all the IDP camps that dot the federation, north and south, including the Bakassi peninsula where thousands of Nigerians have been for years literally abandoned to their unhappy fate by their government.  This may be a misfortune for some Nigeria’s citizens but it is larger than that: it is the tragedy of a country of insensitive people high and low. Furthermore, if as it is said, the measure of a people is how they treat their weakest members.

The squalid condition of Nigeria’s internally displaced persons is a damning commentary on the collective values of the Nigerian people. But it is even more than that. The African Union Convention forms the Protection and Assistance of Internally Displaced Persons in Africa, which requires among a long list of “obligations relating to state parties” “…respect for the principles of humanity and human dignity of internally displaced persons”; “…ensure respect for international humanitarian law regarding the protection of internally displaced persons”; “ensure assistance to internally displaced persons by meeting their basic needs as well as allowing and facilitating rapid and unimpeded access by humanitarian organisations and personnel.”

Indeed, Article V (1) says that, “State Parties shall bear the primary duty and responsibility for providing protection of and humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons within their territory or jurisdiction without discrimination of any kind.” This convention was adopted late October 2009 and came into force December 2012. Member states of the AU are expected to take specific, itemised measures to domesticate and implement at national and local levels, the provisions of this continental agreement. Nigeria is one of 55 member states that have ratified this convention as of May 2019. Deriving from the situation that obtains in the IDP camps in the country, it stands to reason that the three tiers of government in Nigeria stand accused of violating the provisions of the Kampala Convention.

At the local level, a 65-page, six-chapter ‘‘National Policy on Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) in Nigeria’’ “envisions” a Nigeria “…where the right to a life of dignity is guaranteed for all internally displaced persons…” It acknowledges that, “Persons affected by displacement situations experience a wide variety of needs in the short, medium and long term. These include food, water, shelter and other essential items, security, physical and psychological well-being, assistance in restoring family links, healthcare, education, economic and social rehabilitation.”  This national policy even grants in Chapter 3.1.1 (b) that, “All IDPs have the right to enjoy in full equality, the same rights and freedoms under both international and domestic laws as do all other citizens and persons in Nigeria.”

These and other statements are assuring enough. But they fall far short on implementation, which explains the bitterness with which Buba Musa Shehu spoke. It should not at all be so.

Conflicts, strife and natural disasters are inevitable in human affairs. But at least three unpardonable reasons worsen a situation. First, a government that, by acts of omission or commission, fails to address social ills and group grievance before such escalate into insurgency and other acts of criminality. Second, the condemnable lack of empathy as well as greed (including stealing of the resources meant for their care) among officials assigned to assist IDPs. Third, the insufficient concern of the generality of Nigerians to the plight of their fellow citizens.

The Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre calculates that there were 2.583 million IDPs in the country as of December 2019. Of course, the relentless acts of insurgency and banditry have since added to the number. Nevertheless, there can be no justifiable reasons that Nigerians suffer so in their fatherland. It cannot be for a lack of financial resource to take care of them -if the volume of money being reported stolen by public officials is to be believed. Federal, state and local governments must do all they can to ameliorate the condition of the IDPs.

In the words of the UNCHR, the Federal Government must “listen to the IDPs, their aspirations and sense of dignity and safety.”  This much is enjoined by the relevant international conventions to which Nigeria has signed and the relevant national policy. It is a matter both of honour and a fulfilment of the written constitutional obligation of government to the people. We can’t repeat this enough: that welfare and security of the people shall be the primary purpose of government. That is why welfare and security of the IDPs should not be relegated too as welfare and security of the repentant terrorists seem to have taken the steam out of needed attention to the IDPs.

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